South Asian Artist Kohinoorgasm Aims to Uplift Women of Color 

Through her music and her image, Josephine Shetty is trying to change the narrative around being a woman, being South Asian, being an activist, and being a pop musician.

click to enlarge Josephine Shetty (aka Kohinoorgasm) sees power in telling stories of radical self-love. - PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASDEEP KANG, STYLING BY REVA BHATT AND PRAGYA BHATTX
  • Photography by Jasdeep Kang, styling by Reva Bhatt and Pragya Bhattx
  • Josephine Shetty (aka Kohinoorgasm) sees power in telling stories of radical self-love.

Scroll through Kohinoorgasm's Instagram page and you'll begin to peel back her many layers: In one post, she's posing on a bed, wearing a cheetah-print bodysuit and biting an apple. In another, she's wearing a light-green wig with the caption "r u a mermaid 2?"

For self-described "anti-imperialist pop fairy" Kohinoorgasm, sharing these images is just a part of the way she is changing the narrative around being a woman, being South Asian, being an activist, and being a pop musician.

Since graduating from UC Berkeley two years ago, the lo-fi experimental pop artist has made waves in the East Bay, and just last year she took her sound international with a small European tour. But Kohinoorgasm, who is half-Irish and half-Indian and whose real name is Josephine Shetty, is concerned with being a different kind of artist, one who takes her values seriously and uses live performance as a space for healing and unique joy.

Her foray into music was gradual. She began making music in high school and later taught herself how to produce using a synthesizer and GarageBand. After releasing five songs that blended electronic beats and poetic lyrics on SoundCloud in 2016, she received enough praise and encouragement to give her the momentum to keep creating. She released her debut album, Titalee, which means "butterfly" in Hindi, in 2017. "I just like the idea of the butterfly... it's an obvious metaphor for change, growth, and evolution. I'm someone who's been through a lot of evolutions in my life and who has a unique understanding of how change is inevitable — it can be both good and scary," she said. Shetty wrote, recorded, produced, and mixed the project herself.

It features 10 songs, many of which integrate the use of Hindi words, creating a musical manifestation that points to the experience of many first-generation South Asians, caught between their roots and their American environment. Using heavy reverb and beats reminiscent of tribal music, Shetty sings softly, often switching between languages. The tracks are based on ideas of emotional boundaries and acceptance, with titles such as "Mera Shareer [My Body (Is Not Yours)]" and "I Got It Open (You Cannot Close It)." The last song, "Self-Love Isn't Lonely," creates an almost hypnotizing sound, with her filtered voice repeating lines such as It feels like love laying on my floor.

Shetty sees power in telling stories of radical self-love and overcoming pain in her music. "I can subvert these oppressive voices by being confident, decisive, and self-affirming in the things I want to do," she said. "I just never wanted to lose the feeling of knowing that I could be whoever I wanted despite evil and persuasive voices telling me that I couldn't. I felt stoked that I had the power and agency to come to that conclusion on my own... I chose to love myself."

Her first music video, for the single "Azaadi Is Freedom Is Fate," took two days to shoot and features 17 individuals, all of whom are people of color. It is centered around hair, connecting it to themes of freedom and empowerment, with images of queer and trans people with long braids and thick black hair, and femmes holding hands filling the screen. "I wanted the video to uplift these faces, stories, and images... I thought about questions like, 'Who needs freedom the most?' 'Who is represented in this concept of freedom?' 'Who has been denied freedom?' That sort of group to me felt like who fit that role. So, I thought about a shared site on the bodies of those people that is often policed and denied freedom, and I thought hair was one."

And Shetty's values go deeper than the surface, as everyone she hired to work on the project — styling, directing, et cetera — was a woman of color. Creating opportunities for employment for her community has always been at the core and forefront of what she hopes to do. The cover illustration for Titalee — which depicts Shetty wearing a traditional bindi surrounded by bright colors — was created by queer South Asian artist Khushboo Gulati, who is based in Los Angeles.

"One hundred percent of my work has been made alongside Black and Brown queer and trans women and femmes," she said. "It's so important to work with people you share identity and ideology with because no one can tell or critique our stories like we can."

That attitude follows her into her live performances, too. Shetty brings backup dancers to every show and tries to create a safe space for women of color to express themselves. In performing her new material, she has placed real attention on how she occupies venues. "It's so important to envision our joy as a beacon of hope," she said. "If you can see joy and make joy, even in small moments and small spaces in your life, that's really helpful and cathartic and special."

Shetty is working on new music and just started her first East Coast tour this week. She isn't focused on filling large venues with hundreds of people, but she is concerned with staying authentic to her vision.

And that means realizing her own kind of pop star dreams, miles away from images of Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift. She represents a new generation of artists ready to empower young girls and change the narrative. 

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